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Local Filmmaker Jesse Vaughan Offers a Humanizing Look at Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight


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Film director Jesse Vaughan has two all-time favorite athletes: Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. But he’s made a movie about only one of them.

Vaughan’s dramatic film, “The Last Punch” (2016), chronicles Ali’s final boxing bout, the so-called Drama in the Bahama against Trevor Berbick, and his relationship with several promoters. It’s screening at the Richmond International Film Festival, a homegrown, weeklong event, which has added musical performances in its sixth year.

Ali’s previous loss to Larry Holmes was humbling, Vaughan says. “So we really get to see the human aspect of Ali. ... He was struggling with his own survival at the end of his career and wanting to go out on top.”

Starring Karon Riley as Ali, the movie offers an inside view on the intricacies of the promotional side of the fight game, Vaughan says. Especially how difficult it was for first-time promoter, James Cornelius, a former hustler who now goes by Ali Muhammad — and who also wrote the book and is credited as producer of the film.

Vaughan says his profound respect for Ali only grew after this project.

“What moved me more than anything is that he was such a giving person,” he says. “This was a big-hearted man who loved humanity. He was willing to give inexperienced people a shot. He even gave Don King his first shot.”

King, with his shock of graying hair, serves as the film’s villain, played by Keith David (“Platoon”). “He’s the ultimate bad guy,” Vaughan says. “He brags to this day he never paid Ali $3 million for the Holmes fight.”

He’s a bad guy, all right. But the ultimate?

Vaughan, 58, grew up in Richmond and went to Benedictine High School at the same time as Trump adviser Steve Bannon, although he says he didn’t know him.

“Don’t ask me anything about that,” he says, chuckling. “I think he was a senior when I was there. ... It doesn’t seem like [members of the Trump administration] know what they’re doing. Everything is emotional it seems, not based on facts.”

Since his youth studying beside a future radical of the apocalypse, Vaughan carved out a film and television career in Los Angeles, where he lived for 20 years, picking up 28 Emmys along the way. He’s worked on things as varied as the Reagan inauguration , “Living Color” and “Meet the Press,” as well as directing the film “Juwanna Mann,” perhaps his best-known effort.

Vaughan returned home five years ago to take care of his then-ailing mother. Today he works for Virginia State University as director of advance creative services group, an in-house advertising and production unit that boasts more than 1.25 million views on YouTube.

“I like working for people who are perceived as the underdog,” he says.

Vaughan first got into filmmaking after his sophomore year at Virginia Commonwealth University, when he met Bernadine Simmons from WWBT-TV 12. She encouraged him to make the television screen his canvas, suggesting he get a job with a local station. Vaughan soon was hired at WTVR-TV 6 to become a weekend studio cameraman. By 19, he was directing the weekend news.

At the Richmond film festival, Vaughan will be talking about the challenges of working in independent film, such as creative decisions based on budget constraints. He shot “The Last Punch” in a brisk 25 days, even though it features large venues, and credits Richmond’s Rinny Wilson for the about 64 special effects for boxing scenes.

Vaughan says he believes Richmond is a rising town for filmmaking, though he wishes it would provide more tax incentives for filmmakers.

“We filmed in Georgia where they have over $300 million in tax cuts,” he says. The state has no cap and paid out more than $500 million last year to attract the industry.

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, notes that Virginia offers $6.5 million in tax credits and $3 million in grant funds. With film tax credits, he says, it’s important to note that clients “do not get a dime until they have already spent an audited dollar in our state” — and they are required to produce and broadcast at their expense a commercial promoting Virginia tourism.

“You can make a living here, but it’s a little more challenging,” Vaughan says. “My thing is, if you love what you do, nothing is going to stop you from succeeding.” S

“The Last Punch” screens at the Byrd on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. Vaughan is involved in a workshop the same day. Tickets are $8-$10.



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